In advance of the tribute to him at tomorrow's Juno Awards in Vancouver, here's the Preface from my new coffeetable book, Gord Downie, published by Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. of New York City and currently available at Indigo, Coles, and Chapters outlets across Canada.
The first time I spoke to Gord Downie he was a longhaired 25-year-old rocker touring behind his band’s first full-length album. He pulled over to the side of the road in Brantford, Ontario–“the home of Wayne Gretzky!” he declared–and called me up on a store payphone to chat about Up to Here, the undeniably awesome album the Tragically Hip had released three weeks earlier. Two months later the monster single “New Orleans Is Sinking” would hit the airwaves, and there would be no turning back for Canada’s best-ever band (look away, diehard Rush fans).
The day of that first interview was September 28, 1989. How do I know, you ask? Well, because as soon as the call was over I wrote the details down on the cheap, ninety-minute cassette I’d recorded it with. That particular tape also includes interviews with Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens, bass god Stuart Hamm, roots great Dave Alvin, prog-rocker Geoff Tate from Queensryche, and Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam.
Rock ‘n’ roll ruled back in those days.
And as a music writer for Vancouver’s storied weekly paper, the Georgia Straight–where I’ve worked since 1982–I had access to a lot of my favourite bands. Nowadays everyone and their dog has a blog and can become an instant music critic, but back in the ’80s not so much. Lucky for me, the Straight was a major publication in a major city, one where a lot of major bands wanted to play. They also wanted to sell tickets to those shows, and maybe a few albums to boot. So a lot of touring recording artists wanted to talk to somebody at an established newspaper, and I was more than happy to listen (if I liked them).
The ones I really wanted to talk to were the rockers, in particular the guitar-based rockers. And in my book, guitar-based rock didn’t get any better than the music churned out by the Tragically Hip. Because they toured heavily and played Vancouver a lot, I garnered my fair share of interviews with whichever band member was doing press at the time–and more often than not it was Downie. After our payphone call in 1989, I spoke to him several more times over the years: in 1992 (a month after the release of arguably their finest album, Fully Completely), twice in 1995 (when they were touring behind the arguably second-best, Day for Night), and lastly in 1996 (when they were supporting Trouble at the Henhouse, which wasn’t too shabby either).
Looking back, it feels like an honour to have had that connection to the Hip at the height of its success. It didn’t hurt that Downie was always such a great interview. He met all my questions–even the lame ones–with enthusiasm and insight; you could always tell that he really, really cared about his craft, and took the discussion of his art seriously. Sometimes too seriously, perhaps. But like I say, he cared deeply about his craft.
And damn was he good at it.
As well as talking to the band, I reviewed their concerts numerous times. And as great as they were on record, they were even better live. Whether at a wee venue like Vancouver’s Railway Club–where they pulled off a last-minute, surprise Food Bank benefit in 1995–at a sold-out hockey rink, or at an outdoor stadium during one of the Another Roadside Attraction tours, the Hip always played their hearts out. And it goes without saying that Downie’s onstage antics are legend.
As I write this introduction–some 28 years after first connecting with Downie–word has just come in that he has passed away at age fifty-three. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a tearful address to the country, which is in mourning for the true Canadian icon, adored not only for his vast musical accomplishments but his heartfelt efforts to support indigenous peoples while at the same time battling the inoperable brain cancer that took his life.
This is the story of Downie’s journey from the hardscrabble smalltown rock bars of Ontario to the heights of Canadian fame, told largely in his own words via those interviews from the heyday of the Hip.
Hope you enjoy the way I tell the tale.
© 2018 Stephen Ross Newton